The Problem With Penguins’ Power Play

On a Pittsburgh Penguins’ power play in Game 5 on Friday night, Phil Kessel flubbed a pass through the neutral zone. That pass was intercepted by a Philadelphia Flyer and ended up in the back of the Penguins’ own net, a short-handed tally that would erase the home team’s lead and their chance to close out this first-round series. That goal tied a game that the Penguins lost when they allowed another Flyers goal in the final minutes of the third period.

This turnover by Kessel was a symptom of a power play that has been floundering this postseason. After a resurgence in Game 3, it looked like the Penguins might have the Flyers’ penalty kill figured out. But in the Penguins’ loss in Game 5, just as it had in their loss in Game 2, the Flyers’ penalty kill overwhelmed the Penguins. This time, that was enough to get them a goal on the man disadvantage.

Related: Penguins Can’t Sleep on Domination of Flyers

Penguins’ Power Play Rates

There’s only one game this series in which the Penguins’ power play has averaged over one shot per power play opportunity, and that’s in Game 3, in which the team received a whopping seven chances on the man advantage. After struggling on the first opportunity, they managed to get nine shots and three goals on the remaining power plays.

Jake Guentzel
Jake Guentzel was the first member of the Penguins’ power play to break onto the scoreboard this postseason. (Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports)

But in every other game, the Flyers have managed to hold the Penguins to less than one shot per power play. Although the Penguins have never received less than four chances per game on the man advantage this series, in two games— not coincidentally, each of them a Penguins loss— the power play was held off the scoreboard altogether.

PP Opportunities Shots Goals Shots/PP PP Success rate
Game 1 (W) 4 2 1 0.5 25%
Game 2 (L) 4 3 0 0.75 0%
Game 3 (W) 7 9 3 1.29 43%
Game 4 (W) 4 4 1 1 25%
Game 5 (L) 5 4 0 0.8 0%

What is it about the Flyers’ penalty kill that’s giving the best power play of the regular season such problems, holding it to only a 19% success rate this series after it clicked along at a rate of over 26% during the season? It’s the same aspect that caused the Kessel neutral-zone turnover and the eventual short-handed goal. The Flyers have made entering the zone nearly impossible for the Penguins’ top power play unit, and that has kept them from assembling their lethal scoring setup.

Related: Penguins’ Regular Season Power Play Slump

Flyers’ Penalty Kill Success

If the Penguins can get set up in the zone, then they have a plethora of scoring options. They have Kessel at the left circle. They have Evgeni Malkin at the right. They have Sidney Crosby by the net, and if Patric Hornqvist is healthy by Game 6, which rumors say he might be, then they’ll have him in front. And, of course, they’ll have Justin Schultz or Kris Letang to hammer one in from the point. That’s an intimidating setup for any team to face down— but it took 10 power play opportunities before this first unit managed to get a goal in on the man advantage, when Malkin finally slammed one home in Game 3.

Before that, only the Penguins’ second unit had put up goals on the power play. That’s because the first unit had been struggling to even enter the offensive zone.

Hornqvist Crosby Malkin Penguins
Hornqvist, Crosby and Malkin, three parts of the top Penguins’ power play unit. (Don Wright-USA TODAY Sports)

The Kessel giveaway in Game 5 was emblematic of what it is about the Flyers’ penalty kill that has been stifling the Penguins’ power play: they have been exceptional at scrambling plays in the neutral zone before a puck carrier can even get over the blue line. If the Penguins’ top unit can get set up in the zone, then they have a very good chance of scoring. But the Flyers are often able to waste the entire first half of the power play sending the first unit back down the ice to hunt for the puck in the defensive zone. This ability both kept the Penguins’ power play off the board in Game 5 as well as gave the away team the ability to score the short-handed goal that erased a Penguins lead.

The Flyers’ penalty kill saved their series, and their season, on Friday night. They’ve pushed a Game 6 because of their ability to not only tamp down the Penguins’ once-lethal power play, but also to make it a liability. The Penguins’ power play, and especially its first unit, will be looking to find answers in their power play zone entries to close this series out in Game 6.